When TV went to the wire and 'Seldom Seen Kid' was often heard
From TV and music to theatre and poetry, Fintan O'Toolereveals his top 10 cultural highlights of the year
The last season of The Wire
Just as it defied so many truisms about TV drama (you can't have a series with no central character; you can't devote more and more time to black ghetto characters played by unknown actors), David Simon's stunning dissection of Baltimore disproved the rule that TV series end because they're running out of steam. The Wiregot better and bolder and more complex as it went along. It also held its nerve in the face of the perceived need for "closure". The fifth and final series, based around the grotesque plot of McNulty inventing a serial killer supposedly preying on homeless men, in a despairing bid to get more money for police work from the city, was surely the darkest thing that mainstream TV has ever produced.
John Williams in St Canice's Cathedral, Kilkenny
This was a great year for guitar heroes (my own idol, John McLaughlin, played a delightful gig in Dublin's Vicar Street). But nothing could quite match the sheer magic of the great Australian virtuoso in such a beautiful setting and with such a richly resonant acoustic. Casually dressed, with nothing but a chair, a foot stand and a guitar, Williams had the simplicity and humility of a man for whom music seems as obvious and as vital as breathing. His complete refusal of mystique allowed us to concentrate on the real mystery of beauty in Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Albéniz, Mangore, Domeniconi, and, in a wonderfully graceful acknowledgement of his audience, Sí Beag, Sí Mór.
No Man's Landat the Gate
Harold Pinter's potent evocation of the space between life and death, memory and reality, originally starred Ralph Richardson as the grandiose man of letters Hirst, and John Gielgud as the sponger Spooner. The roles have since been played by Paul Eddington and Pinter himself and by Jason Robards and Christopher Plummer. Yet it is hard to imagine a more mesmerising duo than Michael Gambon's wounded, and thus viciously dangerous bear, and David Bradley's dry, cynical, deadpan waster. The handling of the seamless shifts from absurd hilarity to existential terror, and from riveting realism to bleakly beautiful poetry, were as good as anything I've seen on an Irish stage.
The opening of the Wexford Opera House
The signing and staging for the festival's opening production of Rimsky-Korsakov's The Snow Maiden were wonderful. But the real star was what is now clearly the best performance space in Ireland. The intimate acoustic, the terrific sight lines, the way the auditorium embraces the audience and the performers in a single sweep, the brilliant use of an awkward space, all make the theatre a fitting tribute to the vision of the late Jerome Hynes. It is also a tribute to the community in Wexford that has sustained such a remarkable festival and to the expertise of the much-derided public sector (in this case the OPW) in bringing the project in on time, with a very modest budget, and to a superbly high standard.
The Seldom Seen Kidby Elbow
Before it became obligatory backing for TV promos and ads, before it won the Mercury prize, Elbow's album was a thrilling vindication of the possibilities of mainstream rock music as a vehicle for wit, poetry and grown-up thinking. Mourning the death of a friend and celebrating new love, Guy Garvey's songs bring a rooted immediacy to big themes. A genuinely charming and hard-working gig in Dublin in October suggested that belated success hasn't made the band any less thrilled at having an audience.
Stepping Stones: Interviews With Seamus Heaney, by Dennis O'Driscoll
In his Nobel acceptance speech, Heaney described his work as "a journey where each point of arrival" has "turned out to be a stepping stone rather than a destination". For such a career, a definitive autobiography, implying that the destination has been reached, would probably be a mistake. The elegant solution is O'Driscoll's appropriately named and carefully constructed series of interviews. Heaney remains in motion, sometimes performing elegant swerves away from fixed positions, but the combination of his astonishing eloquence and O'Driscoll's subtle, deeply informed questioning produces a superb map of the journey of a remarkable imagination.
Secular Edenby Harry Clifton
Flux was also the theme of Harry Clifton's first collection of poem for 14 years, one that marked his emergence as a truly outstanding talent. Funny, profound, superbly accomplished and deeply engaging, Secular Edencaptures an Irish voice that is utterly contemporary in its restless movement through time and space.
Connemara: The Last Pool of Darknessby Tim Robinson
Robinson's brilliantly idiosyncratic mix of cartography, anthropology, natural history, travel writing, geology, sociology and autobiography make it easy to forget that he is simply one of the best non-fiction prose writers currently at work.
Taking his cue from Wittgenstein, he draws on his utter immersion in north Connemara and its offshore islands to create a sense of place that is at once vividly direct and as many-layered as an archaeological excavation.
Welcome Here Againby Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill
For those used to the thrilling pyrotechnics of Live in Seattle, with its long sets of tunes building towards ecstatic conclusions, this album's understatement seems, at first, a little disappointing. The pieces are mostly short - the majority less than three minutes. There is no self-conscious display of technique and the sleeve notes actually declare that "we try to avoid an overly technical or cerebral approach". But as you listen more, you understand that, for Hayes and Cahill, technique has ceased to matter, because it has been so thoroughly subsumed that it can be a springboard into the regions of instinct and intuition. This music has the blissful ease that comes only from complete mastery.
Happy Days at the Abbey Deborah Warner's hugely intelligent production and Fiona Shaw's wonderfully poignant performance as Winnie were not just great theatre in themselves. They also pointed the way forward for Beckett productions by striking a fine balance between faithfulness to the author's text and intention and the originality and innovation that are necessary for theatrical vitality. Changes to the set and pacing and Shaw's utterly individual interpretation of Winnie, encompassing a baroque diva and a Montenotte matron, gave the production its own edge. But none of this seemed capricious. By honouring the author as well as questioning him, Shaw and Warner produced what may be the first great production of the second generation of Beckett on stage.